Technology Snapshot & Benefits:
Composting is the process of breaking down organic material into its basic
chemical and nutrient form. This occurs with the help of microorganisms that
decompose waste and create a usable material. Compost consists of a combination
of organic wastes (food scraps, yard trimmings, etc.) and bulking agents (i.e.
wood chips or newspaper) that has cured until reaching its stable, mature form.
Once at this point, it can be used as a medium for plant growth or a soil
amendment to help condition soil and encourage growth in backyards, crop fields,
public and private landscaping, nurseries, etc. Compost is also used in
landfill restoration projects to cover existing landfills and create a usable
space for development.
Composting is among the best practices for reducing waste. It is estimated that
23% of the U.S. waste stream is made up of food scraps and yard trimmings (EPA).
While these materials are biodegradable, their placement in landfills takes up
space and contributes to their high levels of methane that can pollute
surrounding areas. By composing materials either at home or at a commercial
composting facility, you can help minimize the amount of organic waste being
sent to landfills and produce a healthy, usable soil.
In addition to preventing landfill build-up, composting decreases the need for
chemicals and fertilizers, enriches existing soil and helps clean contaminated
soil, prevents pollution, helps with reforestation, restoration, and habitat
revitalization, and provides an inexpensive alternative to traditional garden
pollution remediation technologies. For more information on the science behind
composting, visit the EPA's page on
Estimated Cost Savings:
Composting is a relatively inexpensive process as the only main expense is the
compost bin. After that, it just takes time to properly maintain your
composting bin or pile. Little to no money is involved. However, because you
will be producing a functional material that can be used in place of soil,
chemicals, and/or fertilizer, you will be saving money by not having to pay for
these additional items. If done properly, composting can save over 50% when
compared to conventional gardening practices (EPA).
It is important to maintain a proper ratio of ingredients in your compost pile
or bin to ensure that it is functioning properly. Balance the amount of greens
(grass, food, etc.) and browns (dry leaves, branches, etc.) for proper
decomposition. This allows for even amounts of nitrogen and carbon that help
catalyze the process. Check your pile frequently to make sure it remains moist
as this keeps the microorganisms alive and encourages decomposition. If it is
beginning to dry out, add water. Additionally, as composting is an aerobic
process (one that uses oxygen) there must be proper air flow to ensure that the
proper amounts of oxygen are reaching the microorganisms. Turn the pile on a
regular basis and add bulking agents like wood chips and shredded newspaper to
eliminate this problem. Finally, cut your scraps into small pieces as this will
increase the surface area and allow the microorganisms to decompose it at a
Not everything can be composted. Avoid meats, dairy, fats, and oils as they can
create odor issues. Also, do not use yard trimmings that have been exposed to
chemical pesticides as these can be harmful to the microorganisms in the compost
pile. Most other foods and yard trimmings can be used, but check the EPA's list
and Outs" before adding material to be sure it will not compromise the
Different regions around the country have composting programs set up to educate
consumers and encourage composting in their states. These programs can be great
resources for information about how to compost to best suit your region. To
find programs in your state, visit the
EPA's regional page
and click on your area.
Some states have laws and regulations about commercial composting facilities.
For information on restrictions in your state,
Installation (Getting It Done):
Composting at home can be done either indoors or in your backyard. A variety of
composting bins are available for indoors that require little maintenance and
can be stored in small places for easy use. If done properly (without meats,
fats, and dairy products), composting will have no odor and will not, therefore,
have a noticeable presence inside the home. Indoor composting typically takes
2-5 weeks until the material is in a usable condition.
If you choose to compost outside, you can either make a simple pile or build a
bin out of chicken wire, bricks, or a bucket to house the materials. Consider
covering your pile with a tarp to help keep it moist. Piles can take anywhere
from 2-24 months to completely decompose while material in bins typically takes
1-4 months. When the material at the bottom of the pile or bin is dark brown
and rich in color, it is done composting. Let it sit 1-2 weeks before using to
maximize its effectiveness.
To get started, purchase or construct a bin. Put even amounts of brown (dead
leaves, branches, etc.) and green (food scraps, manure, grass, etc.) into the
bin and mix. Add some bulking materials (newspapers work great) and water to
moisten it. Turn your pile regularly (about every two weeks) and wait until it
is decomposed. Consider adding a small amount of soil to help introduce the
right microorganisms to the mix.
For a step-by-step guide and information on different types of compost bins,
For tips and tricks, visit the EPA's page on
Creating Your Own Compost Pile.
Videos On This Topic:
Composting, The Next Recycling?
(1:49) - Sierra Club Green Homes -
Every year, 31
million tons of food is sent to the land fill, emitting methane gas and
contributing to our changing atmosphere. Because of this, composting is
becoming a more and more popular way to recycle food into fertilizer for gardens
and, thanks to new technology, the process is now easier, less odorous, and
takes up less room. Find out more in this short video.
(3:53) - Sierra Club Green Homes - There are many different options when it
comes to choosing a composting method, including indoor, outdoor, worms, and
tumbling. In this video from Sierra Club Green Homes, watch as Wall Street
Journal's Gwendolyn Bounds tries out four different composters (Ecomposter, Worm
Factory 360, Happy Farmer Kitchen Composter, and Nature Mill Automatic
Composter) and weighs the pros and cons of each one.
(3:37) - Sierra Club Green Homes - Every day, 215 million pounds of trash ends
up in landfills, 15% of which is made up of food. Composting is a great way to
break down food to its basic chemical state with the use of air, water, carbon,
and nitrogen for use as fertilizer. In this video, find out how you can start
composting today and get some tips and tricks from Sierra Club's Owen Bailey on
how to maximize your composting experience.
(5:33) - National Geographic Green Homes - One of the misconceptions about
composting is that it has to be a huge, expensive project that will stink up
your yard and attract animals. In this video, see an easy way to compost using
chicken wire and hear from a gardening expert on how composting works, why it's
beneficial, and what to remember to optimize your results.
More Information On This Topic:
EPA - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Composting
EPA - The Science of Composting
EPA - Decision Makers Guide to Solid Waste Management - Chapter 7: Composting
Earth Easy - Composting
National Resources Conservation Service - Composting
The Garden of Oz - The Basics of Composting